by Carolin Messier
Have you ever gotten in trouble for reading? Not for stealing or cheating or smoking weed or breaking the rules, but for reading?
In our current age of video games, smart phones and a million other multi-media distractions, it’s difficult for many to slow down long enough to lose themselves in a book. With so many demands for my attention as a business owner, engaged friend and inhabitant of the modern world, I read less than I would like, far less than I did as a girl who used it as an escape from the loneliness of difference and the anxiety of parental strife.
In the third grade Laura Ingalls Wilder was my personal hero. I read her eight books until the pages began to fall out of their bindings and I’d memorized her life. Most nights my mother would stick her head in my room and call “lights out” 20 minutes after I was supposed to be asleep. If I was at a good part (and those books were full of “good parts”,) I’d grab my pocket flashlight, pull the covers over my head and continue until I fell asleep. I was greedy; I wanted to get something from reading. I read for the “story”, to live another person’s life and escape my own and the people in it who disappointed me.
In contrast William didn’t expect anything from either people or books. He accepted people as they are and he read for the pure pleasure of the act. He read everything, without exception. Great writing and beautiful prose he especially appreciated, but as a reader he was an egalitarian, not an elitist. The newsletter full of energy-saving tips included with his electric bill got equal measure of his attention as Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the homeless advocacy weekly paper sold by the guy in front of Trader Joe’s. William was the only person I ever knew of who read the eight pages of that paper cover to cover, every time. His mind was built of curiosity, insatiable for the sustenance of ideas, knowledge and wisdom recorded in the written word. When he was in grade school he won a contest from the local paper for submitting the most interesting question to the “Ask Andy” column: “How do hurricanes turn?” His prize was an entire set of encyclopedias. He opened the cover of the first volume and read his way through to the footnotes of Vol. XYZ. His older brother didn’t believe that he’d read the entire dictionary and tried many times to trip him up by opening it at random and quizzing him on the definition of some obscure word. His recall was nearly photographic, which irked his brother.
Books had been the refuge of his southern boyhood. Through them he escaped from the shame of being picked last for every team because he couldn’t catch a ball. They saved him from his father’s disappointment at his missing every target when he aimed with a firing pistol. And the stories he read consoled him about his poor grades, because being born a “McClure” assigned him to a desk 20 feet from the blackboard. His severe near-sightedness wasn’t discovered until he was in the fourth grade. By the time he was fitted with corrective lenses, his relationship with the written word had gone through a holy sacrament, they were wedded for life.
During the first three seasons of our courtship, I rarely saw William settled in with a book. His actions were in dramatic contrast to the stories he told me about himself. The morning after we returned from a beautiful weekend spent together on his sailboat sharing stories, reciting poetry and making love, he put aside the morning paper mid-article when I set a plate of cumin-scrambled eggs and toasted day-old bread in front of him. When I encouraged him to continue enjoying his paper with his breakfast he admitted that he’d “gotten in trouble” in past relationships for reading too much. He was determined not to make that same mistake with me. He’d told me that I was “The One” and that he’d been looking for me for a long time and he didn’t want his habit to mess things up. I told him that I was attracted to this passion of his, that I wanted him to experience every possible pleasure in his life, that the intensity of his reading inspired me. But it didn’t matter how I phrased it; he never quite believed me and he always set aside whatever he was reading when I came into the room. Even in the spring after I asked him to marry me, and he immediately accepted, William still shielded me from his “habit” as if he were a drug addict. The weekend after we got engaged he left for a weekend to work on his boat (and catch up on his closeted habit I was sure.) My words hadn’t penetrated his belief in how things were. I decided to employ an often cited rule of writing, “don’t tell, show”.
While he was away I spent all of my free time researching quotes on reading, books and libraries; laying out text; designing his monogram; and then printing, cutting and packing 1000 bookmarks. On the evening of his return home I presented him with the stack of four boxes wrapped in bitter chocolate paper and a white satin ribbon. I’d found a card that was designed to look like an old school library card, the kind that was slipped into a manila pouch glued to the inside front cover of the book that the librarian would write your name on and date stamp and hold in a card file until the book was returned. Instead of dates and names, I wrote on it that when I asked him to marry me, I accepted all of him, every quirk and habit. When he untied the bow and lifted the cover off of the top box, he looked at me with inquisitive confusion. Lined up on edge, it wasn’t obvious what the pieces of garnet card stock were.
In response to his unspoken question I told him, “Baby, I made you 1000 bookmarks. I know that these won’t be enough to last you a lifetime, so when you’ve used all of these, I’ll make you 1000 more.” He cried and embraced me, finally feeling the gift of complete acceptance I’d been offering him in words for months. From that day until his death a short two years and three months later, he never again set aside his reading when I entered the room.